Biden’s Visit To Firefighters Spotlights Union’s Calls To Replace Toxic Protective Gear

As President Biden headlines a firefighters’ union event on Monday, the first time in more than two decades that a sitting president has addressed the group, the union is amping up calls to replace its members’ toxic working gear. The International Association of Fire Fighters, or IAFF, which represents some 340,000 members and was an early supporter of Biden’s in the 2020 election, has scheduled a rally for Tuesday at the Capitol to urge Congress to remove PFAS — so-called forever chemicals — from their protective gear and set aside funding for safer alternatives.

Firefighters’ three-layer protective garments, known as turnout gear, are meant to keep them safe from flames, heat and water. But the union says that the inclusion of PFAS is responsible for the high rate of cancer among its members. “The very thing that was supposed to be keeping us safe was making us sick,” general president Edward Kelly has said.

PFAS chemicals are an enormous hazard nationwide, with a growing pile of litigation and efforts to address their environmental consequences just beginning. They’ve been used in firefighting foam at airports and oil refineries, and they’re common in consumer items ranging from raincoats to makeup. Exposure to PFAS can increase the risk of people developing certain cancers, lower liver function and increase cholesterol levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Industrial giant 3M, one of the largest U.S. producers of PFAS with $1.3 billion in revenue from them, has said that it will stop producing them by end of 2025 and take total charges of $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion. The company separately reached an $850 million settlement with the state of Minnesota in 2018 over the damage its plant there had made to drinking water and natural resources.

A new documentary, Burned, tracks how Diane Cotter, the wife of retired Worcester, Massachusetts, firefighter Paul Cotter, started the fight against PFAS in turnout gear when she discovered high levels of them in his turnout gear after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014. At the time, the union, under the leadership of Washington, D.C. power broker Harold Schaitberger, had a tight relationship with gear manufacturers, which even sponsored an IAFF symposium on firefighter cancer. Over time, however, ridding gear of toxic chemicals became a major issue for the IAFF. Kelly, the son and grandson of firefighters who first joined the Boston Fire Department in 1997, assumed leadership of the union in March 2021.

The problem is, it’s not so easy to switch out the gear.

For starters, there are national guidelines for fire-resistant gear, set by a group known as the National Fire Protection Association, and those standards effectively require the use of PFAS chemicals. Kelly spoke last week at a meeting of that group in Durham, N.C. to argue for changes to the standards. “We can have safe gear without unsafe chemicals,” he tweeted afterwards. “In Durham yesterday, I made it clear: It’s time for industry and regulatory groups to act. Our firefighters and communities depend on it.”

Changing the standards is the first issue, the second is cost. Each firefighter has at least one set of turnout gear and many have two so they can have one ready while the other is getting cleaned. With a set of gear costing some $3,000, a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the total cost of replacing all PFAS gear above $1.5 billion. Who will cover that cost, and how long it might take, remains an open question.